Anthony de Proft is a lecturer at University College Odisee in Ghent, Belgium, where he teaches Environmental Legislation and Environmental Water Technology. In this interview, he shares with us his experience on waste management and how important it is to think before buying a new product and how best to re-use or recycle our waste.
How did you become involved in waste management research and projects?
I became engaged in “waste management” when I was a student at the University of Bergen, while doing my dissertation.
After my studies, I worked for an architect and engineer office, where I was responsible for the environmental section. I advised companies in Environmental Legislation, Waste management, Odor Problems, Wastewater treatment, among other. Years later, as I wanted to have more contact with people and students, I became a lecturer on Environmental Legislation, Environmental Technology, Water and Corporate Environmental Management at the technical institute were I studied in Ghent.
In 2007, I started a project that aimed to sort chemical liquid wastes from our laboratories and prevent them from polluting water sources or soil. We developed a method for the Responsible Collection of Chemical Waste Liquids, which was then subsidized by the Flemish government. It was quite successful and implemented throughout Flanders in school labs. It is now recognized in Flanders as an example of a Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Costs (BATNEEC – BBT in Dutch) for Laboratory Waste Collection.
How do you manage waste so it does not pollute or contaminate the environment?
In most parts of the world products are used, re-used and then probably thrown away as waste. They are also collected and disposed of in landfills or also burned. In a sustainable waste management process we use the Lanksink’s Ladder as a guide.
First, we prevent waste, then we re-use the products, we recycle, then we burn to regain its energy, and/or finally we dump it. However, we should always try to consider primarily the steps that are higher on the ladder. Prevention is the best way, as it implies that we prevent ourselves from generating waste – waste therefore has no cost, because it is “not there”. The focus must be here: consider buying products without packaging or products with a reusable packaging. Waste that can’t be reused or recycled is ‘rest’-waste and it is the most expensive type of waste, as getting rid of it is costly both in practical and financial terms, but also and most importantly, for the environment. Always take a look inside your waste bag, what can you find? You can take out metals, glass, hard plastics, soft plastics, paper, cardboard, greens among other. Which of these can be recycled into new products or re-useable products without losing quality?
In some countries, waste management doesn’t get further than steps D, E and F. In this sense, a good waste management is still relevant and should be based on the Cradle-2-Cradle model, where waste is perceived as “food” for something else – either food for the biosphere (that is, for the soil or the ecosystem without harming it) or as food for the technosphere (something that can be re-used as a raw material for other products or technological processes).
This implies that products should be designed well in the first place, in order for you to easily take them apart and sort them out in different ‘pure’ fractions or elements that can be used later, as new raw materials in technological processes for new products. For example, you can make new plastic bottles from old plastic bottles instead of making new plastic bottles from oil derivatives. Think about it, how wonderful would it be that the soles of your shoes could be 100% natural and that the waste that is created when you walk on the street is not a toxic rubber or plastic that kills, but nutrition, food for micro- and other organisms?
How does your waste management project work in Belgium? How transformative has your project been?
In Belgium we are world-top in waste management and mainly in recycling. Our project follows European Legislation and guidelines closely. In that sense, our project is not new or very different, we only try to use the ladder as strictly as possible. We focus more on changing the way we think about waste management, trying always to climb up the ladder for every waste ‘fraction’ you have in your hands, rather than focusing on a change in technology.
For example, if you take a cigarette package, everybody probably thinks that this ‘paper-covered-with-plastic-foil’ is rest-waste that cannot be re-used. But if you look closely, you can observe that it can easily be taken apart into paper and into plastic foil. The paper can be recycled, the plastic foil can be reused as an energy source for combustion processes, and the rest will unfortunately have to be disposed of, which is not sustainable indeed. This is of course a simple example, but in industrial processes this could be about tons of paper and foil that can be re-used, instead of a lot of waste that is left in landfills.
In the long run, however, we can and must rethink how we re-use and recycle using fewer raw materials, creating less waste and producing less greenhouse gasses.
Everybody can easily use this concept, which is in fact a natural concept. In nature there is no waste, everything is used for the growth of something else. We just need to become more conscious of it.
What are your reflections and what would you say to others?
A good waste management system is not that difficult to put in place. But we should go beyond the idea of getting rid of things we don’t need any more. We should always ask ourselves, can somebody else use the things I don’t need anymore? Can we sort this out and make new products of it? Can we regain the energy? But most of all and first of all, do I really need that new product?
If you want to read more about waste management, Anthony de Prooft has written a book that you can find here [in Dutch]: http://www.politeia.be/nl-be/book/afvalbeheer-voor-milieuprofessionals/AFVALB923M.htm
This interview was done by Inès Bentolila, our former Campaign Officer.